TCHERS' VOICE / Lesson Planning

When A Lesson Goes All Wrong

Sarah Brown Wessling is a high school English teacher in Johnston, Iowa. She is the 2010 National Teacher of the Year and is the Teacher Laureate for Teaching Channel. Connect with Sarah on Twitter - @SarahWessling.

I'm afraid of mediocrity. That too-comfortable place where repetition and apprehension meet. In an effort to combat the commonplace, I decided long ago to not be afraid of my mistakes. Rather than trying to cover them up or excuse them away, I've always faced them head-on with a desire to learn and become better as a result.

Recently, when Teaching Channel was filming in our classroom, the film crew was joking with me: "We haven't had a bad lesson yet, Sarah. We better knock on wood." Of course, I'd had days when lessons didn't go quite right, but just not when the cameras were there.

Not 24 hours later, during 3rd hour, the bomb dropped in the form of a lesson gone all wrong. As I realized what was happening, my first thought was, "not in front of the cameras." But quickly I remembered exactly why I wanted the cameras in the classroom: to show that opening one's classroom door to review and reflection is the only way any of us get better. And I want to get better. So we captured the lesson as it fizzled and in the space between that class and the next one, I started to upack my thinking. I had to assess what went wrong, determine what I could shift in the five minutes between classes and be prepared to think on my feet as the new lesson unfolded.

All of this is to say that making mistakes is part of getting better. In fact, I encourage gentle failure in the classroom, knowing that without it we're resigned to doing a version of what we've always done. It's easy to become dependent upon our routines – after all, we are creatures of habit. But over time, those habits transcend into rituals and we must ask ourselves whether our rituals are sustaining what's best in the classroom or subverting it.

The new semester is here for me too and I know that I want to concentrate on finding ways to use technology to begin "flipping" our classroom. I also know that I want to do a better job of making the content especially relevant to my 10th grade students. We've been focusing so much on the skills of Common Core that I also want them to remember just how fun reading, writing and language should be.

It seems that in order to get better we have to get out of the abstract and into the concrete. This is why I'm most thankful for not only the Teaching Channel cameras, but also the Flip camera that's perched in the back of my classroom each day, recording our work. This is what helps me grow: to see what's really going on, without filters and without judgment or self-loathing of the less-than-perfect moments; rather, using them as catalysts to collaborate or take an intellectual-risk. So enjoy learning from my mistakes – I certainly have!

As you watch the video and perhaps even the "uncut" companions (view uncuts Part One and Part Two), I'm eager for your feedback and thought-provoking questions to get all of us thinking about how we make progress from making mistakes.


Sarah Brown Wessling is a high school English teacher in Johnston, Iowa. She is the 2010 National Teacher of the Year and is the Teacher Laureate for Teaching Channel. Connect with Sarah on Twitter - @SarahWessling.

This is SO GREAT. Thank you for being willing to show this. It is INVALUABLE to new teachers (and experienced teachers) to hear that when kids aren't listening, it might be because you're asking too much of them. I am going to share this with my whole team. Your model of flexibility and your commitment to TEACHING THE KIDS is wonderful. Thank you.
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Hi Amanda, I got them ready to write the paper by taking a step back and evaluating what we did accomplish. Then I tried to give them an accessible entry point and then we used writing process to get better. I hope this helps answer your question -- it's a great one to ask! Sarah
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I can relate! I loved the repairs! It's ok for students to experience struggle. I watched the whole video. How did you get them ready to write that paper?
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Like Katie I teach pre-service teachers and the Teaching Channel provides many great resources. This is one of the best because it shows a well-planned lesson, one that would look great on paper, fall flat. This is frustrating to new teachers (or student teachers), but is a reality of any performance (plan vs execution). Thanks for sharing!
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Damien and Katie, I appreciate the camaraderie surrounding this lesson. You're both so right: it is complex and difficult and imperfect and valuable to struggle. I think the struggle is something we all live, but don't necessarily talk about in productive ways. I'm so glad that the video has provided a platform for talking about all the "messiness" of teaching without feeling badly about it. Thanks for all you do! Sarah
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